When you go to see a movie or view a work of art, do you want an emotional, transportive experience or an autopsy? Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician presents the tragedy of the cynical, analytical critic and the difficult line trod by the artist in creating an impression of wonder while being subject to human infirmity. Few works of fiction so brilliantly capture the sad relationship between these two people.
This is an ensemble film featuring a small travelling magic troupe in the mid-19th century being interrogated in the home of a village consul, Egerman (Erland Josephson). The cast includes various troupe members, the local intellectuals analysing them, and the servants who carry on their lives of toil, broken up by sexual play. But primarily the story is of a contest between the Magician, Vogler (Max von Sydow), and the Minister of Health, Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand).
When Vergerus examines Vogler, he announces that he can find no physical reason to account for the claim that Vogler is mute, and a look of anguished disappointment passes over Vogler’s face. It’s not simply the disappointment of a ruse seen through but the disappointment in perceiving Vergerus’ motives. When Vergerus sits down to challenge Vogler’s talent for mesmerism, the Minister of Health finds himself rambling about his desire to dissect Vogler and analyse the parts of his brain.
Despite this, Vergerus sarcastically announces Vogler’s attempt to mesmerise him was a failure. The consul’s wife, Ottilia (Gertrud Fridh) indignantly asks how Vergerus could say Volger failed when Vergerus had plainly experienced profound emotion. This makes Vergerus dig his heels in even further and claim any emotion she perceived may have been his disappointment in not feeling anything. Vergerus is very clever but unfortunately he uses that cleverness to evade an honest contemplation of his own reactions. It’s terrible what the officials put Vogler through but at times I found myself pitying Vergerus even more.
I found myself thinking of Sullivan’s Travels when the coachman (Lars Ekborg) and the housemaid (Bibi Andersson) use a love potion given them by a witch travelling with the troupe (Naima Wifstrand) as an excuse to sleep together. “She’s normally so reserved!” remarks another servant about Andersson’s character. One senses the two sexual partners may on some level realise the love potion is a fake but, on the other hand, maybe it isn’t since it accomplishes exactly what a love potion is meant to do.
The final act of the film is a pretty effective horror sequence in which Vergerus gets his wish to perform an autopsy on Vogler. But even when an eyeball mysteriously turns up in his inkpot he’s unwilling to admit the value of his own emotional reactions to the experience. Again and again, Vergerus claims triumph and, again and again, we see Vogler is genuinely effective. I won’t say Vogler triumphs because the contest exists primarily in Vergerus’ mind. Vogler isn’t really trying to prove his powers but to engage in a reciprocal experience, to create something for his audience. The distrust of the critics, the inability to be vulnerable to experience, results in the talented Vogler being nearly reduced to beggar or criminal. But the reality of his talent means that his fortunes can also reverse at any time provided he has the right audience.
The Magician is available on The Criterion Channel.